In 1799, Francisco Goya finished an etching that depicted him lying face-down on his desk, surrounded by a demonic swarm of bats and owls. Its title, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is a paraphrase of the epigram for the piece, which begins, “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters.” It’s a haunting message, one that raises a question: what happens when fantasy fucks off and leaves reason to fend for itself?
Last month, BuzzFeed published an investigation detailing sexual misconduct allegations against theoretical physicist and Arizona State University professor Lawrence Krauss, the author of best-selling science books like The Physics of Star Trek and A Universe from Nothing. Women BuzzFeed interviewed described a slew of inappropriate behaviors over several years, “including groping [...], ogling and making sexist jokes to undergrads, and telling an employee at Arizona State University [...] that he was going to buy her birth control so she didn’t inconvenience him with maternity leave.”
Kraus has refuted the accusations, telling BuzzFeed they were “false and misleading defamatory allegations” and later writing a lengthy statement attempting to discredit the publication’s reporting. But after the article came out, he was put on paid leave by ASU and barred from returning to campus while the university conducted a review of the matter. He also resigned from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Board of Sponsors, where he was one of the minds in charge of deciding how close the hands of the Doomsday Clock are to midnight, in addition to being voted off the honorary board of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and suspended from the Center for Inquiry.
What happens when fantasy fucks off and leaves reason to fend for itself?
Reading through the BuzzFeed piece, I was struck by a comment that Krauss made last year on the subject of inclusivity in science, during a promotional event for his most recent book: “Science itself overcomes misogyny and prejudice and bias,” he said. “It’s built in.” As an outspoken member of the Freethought community, a philosophical movement that prizes reason and rigorous thinking above all else, Krauss’s unshakeable belief in the scientific method is hardly surprising. But as the #MeToo movement continues to shine a light on the culture of toxic masculinity and harassment women face in the workplace, it’s also exposing the cracks in the ideological foundation that underpins Freethought, a sort of naïve faith in the power of science to foster equitable outcomes in fields that are notoriously unwelcoming to anyone who is not white and male.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the #MeToo movement, it’s that so much of understanding injustice is experiential and rooted in anecdotal evidence. For hardcore freethinkers, that’s a problem, because personal testimonies can’t be verified or tested in an empirical way. And if something can’t be measured, calculated, or observed, it may as well not exist — even though studies of sexual harassment in science reveal the opposite to be true.
Today, if there was a Mount Rushmore of celebrity atheists, Krauss’ face would be chiseled somewhere in-between Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, all public intellectuals known for their ardent atheism, best-selling books, and penchant for grandstanding during lectures and public appearances. Alternatively known as skeptics (and sometimes new atheists), Freethinkers believe that truth can only be found through reason, logic, and empiricism.
Freethought’s roots extend back to the heyday of spiritualism and medical pseudoscience in 19th century America and England. After the Fox sisters captured the public’s imagination by claiming to have contacted a dead man’s spirit in 1848, seances became in vogue, and so did debunking them; sometimes the debunking of a medium’s psychic scam would become a theatrical attraction in its own right, a pastime that probably explains why many of the Skeptic movement’s most outspoken proponents — like Houdini, James Randi, and Penn & Teller — have been magicians. That passion for showmanship extends to today’s Skeptic community, as does its proponents’ extreme distrust of paranormal phenomena, religion, and anecdotal evidence.
But for a community of thinkers who pride themselves on an almost Vulcan-esque devotion to logic and reason, prominent skeptics sure have a knack for saying deeply misogynistic and racist things.
Harris and Dawkins have both come under fire for making hateful remarks about Islam. Harris faced blowback for claiming that there are innate psychological differences between the sexes that make men more suited to be a part of the Atheist community, while Hitchens wrote an essay on why women aren’t funny. Dawkins, for his part, has a long history of antagonizing female skeptics, hitting a particularly low point in 2011, when he responded to Skepchick blog founder Rebecca Watson’s story about getting hit on in an elevator by penning the infamous Dear Muslima letter — aka, the “Shut up about being creeped on, ladies, because at least you don’t have to worry about female circumcision” argument — for which he later apologized. In addition to calling out Krauss, Skepchick and skeptic bloggers like PZ Myers have long been tracking instances of misogyny and harassment in their community, like when Skeptic magazine founder Michael Shermer was accused of sexual misconduct in 2008.
It’s not just the Skeptic community that is grappling with this cognitive dissonance. Talk to any Ayn Rand-loving libertarian about the free market or any Silicon Valley tech disruptor about the benefits of investing in cryptos and living off of meal-replacement foods (the perfect rationalist’s meal: enough nutrients to keep you alive without any of the flavor that makes life worth living), and they’ll offer up a similar line: The algorithm is neutral and unbiased. It’s just math — math is pure. The free market doesn’t need to be regulated; the invisible hand will fix everything. We’ve run the numbers and the numbers don’t lie.
The trouble with this thinking is that you can’t always rely on numbers. Facebook has spent the last year weathering a public-relations nightmare because they put more faith in their algorithms than in human oversight. Crypto true believers are so intensely devoted to blockchains that even joke crypto currencies are accruing ludicrous values, a warning sign of a feeding-frenzy investment culture that some financial experts worry will lead to a crash — something we already got a taste of back in December, when Bitcoin depreciated from around $20,000 to under $12,000. Situations like these happen because producers and workers in the digital economy are putting all the focus on the numbers and not giving enough thought to how those numbers are affecting entire groups of people.
Consider that even a company with as strong a record for cultural sensitivity and outreach as Google could produce a James Damore. Damore’s infamous “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” memo, which cherry-picked through research on biological differences and evolutionary psychology to make the argument that men were more suited to work as engineers at Google than women, reflected a strain of biased thinking that’s prevalent enough in the industry to make women feel excluded or lose out on job opportunities. If the people with the power to make personnel decisions believe that women are just naturally less inclined to thrive in STEM fields, then they don’t have to worry about changing their company’s culture.
Even the most neutral of tools can’t help but be shaped and influenced by the biases and blind spots of the people who wield them.
When it comes to surveying the effects of these attitudes, the numbers — freethinkers’ favorite form of evidence — don’t lie. Despite comprising roughly 50 percent of the workforce in America, women hold about 26 percent of the computer and mathematical jobs in the U.S. A 2015 study called The Elephant in the Valley polled more than 200 senior-level women in the tech industry and found that 75 percent were asked questions about their family plans and marital status in interviews, 66 percent felt they were excluded from key social and networking opportunities, and 60 percent reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace.
While some tech companies have tried to correct this by embracing diversity initiatives, others opt to use a meritocratic approach. But biases can still come into play when managers focus on nothing but resumes. Emilio J. Castilla and Stephen Bernard called this “The Paradox of Meritocracy” in a groundbreaking 2010 study, where they found that hiring managers in organizations that viewed themselves as meritocratic were less likely to examine their own hiring practices and biases because they believed they were acting objectively.
Science, like the free market or most forms of technology, is a neutral thing by itself. It’s a system. But that system requires the use of human actors. Someone has to do the math, someone has to decide what advancements are worth investing in and what gets scrapped, someone has to write that algorithm. Just as Darwin’s theories were used to justify imperialism, even the most neutral tools can’t help but be shaped and influenced by the biases and blind spots of the people who wield them.
In a 2013 podcast interview, John Ralston Saul, philosopher and author of Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, summed up this blindspot in the rational worldview: refusing to acknowledge that there are other tools in our toolbox than reason.
“There are lots of other counterweights out there apart from reason,” he said. “You can use ethics. You can use intuition. You can use imagination. But if you become obsessed by rationalism or reason then you start to construct everything around it and you are dragging a everything through what you think is a rational methodology.”
Being able to engage with issues like inequality and harassment takes empathy, and empathy requires imagination and ethics: to see yourself in someone else and feel their injustice. Fantasy + Reason, if you wanted to get all Goya about it.
Krauss’ response to the allegations did not go over well with many skeptics, but there’s a passage in his statement where he admits that he may have “made people feel intimidated, uncomfortable, or unwelcome” with his brash and caustic demeanor. “I realize it is important that I try to be more sensitive to the feelings of others,” he writes a bit later on, “and the current movement makes clear that my sensitivity, like many others’, can be improved.”
In these moments, he seems to examine his own actions with a bit of the rigor that he applies to his work — and that’s something that men in the Skeptic community need to do more of. It’s easy to disprove the existence of things that go bump in the night; it’s a lot harder to deal with the monsters that lurk inside ourselves.